Sunday, May 16, 2021

Plautus and Roman comedy in times of war

 The comedic plays of Titus Maccius Plautus are said to be mostly adapted from the works of established Greek playwrights like Menander, referred to as Greek New Comedy. The resulting plays, thought to be around 130 works, were written between 205 and 184 BCE. Only 20 have survived to modern times.  

Unlike the Old Comedy of such playwrights as Aristophances with its critical commentary on politics and societal values, New Comedy has been described as "devoid of a serious political, social or intellectual content" and "could be performed in any number of social and political settings without risk of giving offense." Instead, there is much more of a focus on the home and the family unit—something that the Romans, including Plautus, could easily understand and adopt for themselves later in history.

However, Plautus did not ignore the Roman Republic's expansion of power and influence that was taking place during this time.  A. F. West observed that Plautus inserted patriotic passages into his work Miles Gioriosus, composed during the Second Punic War.  At the time, the general Scipio Africanus wanted to confront Hannibal, a plan "strongly favored by the plebs". Plautus apparently pushes for the plan to be approved by the senate, working his audience up with the thought of an enemy in close proximity and a call to outmaneuver him. 

Later, though, when Rome was preparing  to move on Philip V in the Second Macedonian War and there was considerable debate beforehand about the course Rome should take in this conflict considering the recent struggles with Carthage, Plautus incorporates the Roman people's antiwar sentiments into his work, Stichus.   

W. M. Owens writes in his article "Plautus' Stichus and the Political Crisis of 200 B.C.", "There is evidence that antiwar feeling ran deep and persisted even after the war was approved." Owens contends that Plautus was attempting to match the complex mood of the Roman audience riding the victory of the Second Punic War but facing the beginning of a new conflict. For instance, the characters of the dutiful daughters and their father seem obsessed over the idea of officium, the duty one has to do what is right. Their speech is littered with words such as pietas and aequus, and they struggle to make their father fulfill his proper role. The stock parasite in this play, Gelasimus, has a patron-client relationship with this family and offers to do any job in order to make ends meet. Owens puts forward that Plautus is portraying the economic hardship many Roman citizens were experiencing due to the cost of war.

With repeated references to civic responsibility while portraying the desperation of the lower class, Plautus establishes himself firmly on the side of the average Roman citizen. While he makes no specific reference to the possible war with Greece or the struggles of the previous war, he does seem to push the message that the government should take care of its own people before attempting any other military actions.

Terracotta comic mask from Tarentum in South Italy, 300-200 BCE, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Image courtesy of the museum. The mask features a rounded skullcap with two holes for hanging in the upper section of the head. The oval face presents a convex forehead with a cleft at center, high arched eyebrows above half-closed eyes, a long thin nose, puffy cheeks, and a broad mouth with an ambiguous smile. Fleshy lips frame the wide-open mouth; the jaw is prominent and features a full, dimpled chin. The hair is painted red and forms a crown of radial striations around the forehead. These characteristics associate the mask with the New Comedy character Colax, an adulator (or vain flatterer).

Greek Terracotta Statuette of a Comic Actor made in Apulia South Italy 325-275 BCE that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Roman Terracotta Lamp with Reclining Comic Actor 100-200 CE that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Statuette of a Comic Actor Wearing an Animal Mask Roman 100 BCE-100 CE Bronze that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Incense Burner (Thymiaterion) shaped as a Comic Actor Seated on an Altar Roman 1-50 CE Bronze and Silver BCE that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Bronze Roman Lamp in the Shape of a Comic Mask 75-125 CE that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Mosaic depicting theater masks Roman 2nd century CE that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Carved Marble Relief depicting tragic and comic masks Roman 2nd century CE that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" on display at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon.

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